This article was co-written by former CPTC research assistants Nora Laberee, Shannon Traurig, and Amber Williams.
Stress Management: Create a Plan
As teens, it is key to prepare to manage life’s challenges in healthy ways if we are to thrive in an unpredictable world. Stress affects mood and causes physical discomfort. Stress management helps manage feelings and leads to growth, better health, and even improves relationships. But before taking action, it’s important to figure out the cause of stress.
What Causes Stress?
Stress is caused by the release of certain hormones in response to feeling threatened, afraid, or nervous. When stressed, the body floods with hormones that lead to physical symptoms including sweating, increased heart rate, or difficulty thinking logically and clearly. This is because the body is preparing the best way to escape the threat. Historically, the stress response system was beneficial to humans. When prehistoric humans saw a tiger in the wild, their stress response kicked into gear. Those individuals with a high-functioning system often escaped danger.
Some stress can be a good thing. A small amount of stress focuses attention and enhances performance. Stress can even save lives. Genuinely life-threatening crises send the mind and body into survival mode, preparing it to escape when necessary
The problem is that the stress-response system was not designed for today’s world. In simplest terms, humans are designed to run from tigers. The rational part of the brain shuts down when it’s the time to escape. It does not stop to negotiate. Nor, does the part of the brain that allows us to feel or to relate to others function at its best. We are not supposed to think about the tiger’s feelings as it prepares to attack.
But most modern-day stressors are not tigers — they aren’t real threats. When the same stress response occurs after a mild stressor that is not really dangerous (e.g. a job interview, an exam, or an argument with a parent) it can be destructive.
Stress Biology 101
When the stress response system is fully activated, the body feels it immediately. It experiences butterflies as the blood quickly shifts to muscles that want to run. The heart beats fast so it can pump blood. Breathing intensifies to oxygenate that blood. Sweating allows the body to cool off, and pupils are dilated to remain alert. An understanding of stress biology is key to stress management. Once you understand what’s stressing you and how your body may react, then you can create strategies to address it in a healthy way — also known as coping.
Make the Right Choices
Some of the best and most positive strategies to address stress may take work or practice. On the other hand, some negative coping strategies offer near instant relief, making them attractive. A number of these quick fixes include drinking, drug use, self-mutilation, sexual behaviors, thrill-seeking, and unhealthy eating patterns to name a few. They may offer fleeting relief but they can be dangerous. They can lead to lower self-esteem, conflict in relationships, and poor performance in school. And this just adds to the stress, creating more need to escape.
It’s important to remember there are choices. Healthy choices offer the ability to gain control and resolve issues.
Build a Stress Management Plan
As you begin building a stress management plan, consider how to think realistically about the problem at hand. That way, you can figure out what’s stressing you out. And understand there is no stress management strategy more powerful than reaching out for support from others.
Once you’ve determined the problem, it’s time to make your plan. A strong stress management plan includes four broad categories. Each category includes different strategies to manage stress. Pick strategies you think will work best for your situation. By clicking through to the different strategies you can learn even more about putting each strategy into place.
Category 1: Problem Solving
Identify and Then Tackle the Problem
Sometimes, when you identify the source of stress, it can feel overwhelming. You may feel unable to address the problem. To get past that feeling, divide it into smaller pieces and manage one piece at a time. For example, you can make lists and timelines, and then identify a strategy from your plan to address each part of the problem.
Avoid What Stresses You Out Whenever Possible
Life is hard enough without having to deal with things that can be avoided. Bypass, rather than confront, problems when it is safe and wise to do so. Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger emotions can be an act of tremendous strength.
Instead of devoting energy to worrying about things you can’t change, channel your energy differently. Focus on problems that can be fixed!
Category 2: Maintain Healthy Bodies
The Power of Exercise
Stress hormones prepare the body to run or fight. They put the mind into a survival-only mode which makes it hard to focus, think clearly, and problem-solve. When the body is stressed and doesn’t get exercise, it’s left feeling as if it needs to run from danger. Exercise literally runs out those hormones. Exercise is also tightly linked to better physical health and contributes to mental and emotional well-being.
Learning to Really Relax
Sometimes it’s impossible to run away from a problem. Active relaxation strategies can help the mind regain focus and be a first step to problem-solving. Relaxation, just for its own sake, also contributes to mental, physical, and emotional health.
Good Nutrition and Eating Well
Proper nutrition is essential to a healthy body, a clear mind, and managing stress.
Proper sleep is important to stress management because exhausted people cannot solve problems effectively. Whether a lack of sleep comes from poor sleep habits or stress, the brain and the body both benefit from breaking a cycle of sleeplessness.
Category 3: Managing Emotions
Take Instant Vacations
Healthy escapes prevent the mind and body from needing to turn to dangerous, quick fixes. Take breaks from stress by taking advantage of the imagination. Focus the mind on something other than the problem at hand. Choose activities and practices that don’t permit other thoughts to intrude.
It is important to learn to express emotions so they don’t build up inside. A bit of stress is energizing and can enhance performance. Too much stress can be paralyzing. Learn the benefits of expressing feelings and emotions.
Category 4: Giving Back
Contribute to Know How Much You Matter
Contribution to others, the community, and the larger society pays off in many ways. It feels good to serve. It’s empowering to make a difference. Giving back makes it easier to ask for help in times of need because you learn first hand that people find joy in giving, they do not serve out of pity. Giving back to others teaches that if you are ever in need of help, it’s okay to ask and receive it without feeling shame.
Now that you understand the causes of stress and range of ways to cope with and manage it, it’s time to get started! Create a plan so you’re prepared with a healthy range of options to face life’s stressful situations. Pick and choose strategies that work for you. These strategies will help you manage problems today, and will serve you over a lifetime.
[The full plan is published by The American Academy of Pediatrics in Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.]